‘There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you’ Zora Neale Hurston
There are days of dragged out seconds stretching forever onward into minute after minute, hour after empty hour, killing time, time killing me. Me wanting to be gone from here yet not before the story ends. But, until I begin to tell the tale, how may it be ended?
The Missing Penny
In the Calton District of Glasgow, where I grew up in the 1950’s, my extended family and trusted neighbours provided emotional security. The financial hardship, for one who had never known anything different, was not unnoticed, far from it, but did not impinge on my sense of well-being.
I learned a very important lesson when, around my fifth or sixth year, my father sent me to buy something from Alfie’s, our local shop. Everyone knew Alfie and Alfie knew everyone in the community. I was given the task of buying my father 10 cigarettes and a box of matches. In Alfie’s shop, in my childish ignorance, I thought I could also buy a penny caramel, even though I had not been given permission to do so, without my father noticing. I knew it was wrong because I ate the caramel before I got home. And then, when I returned and gave my father his cigarettes and matches and the change from the money he had given me, minus the cost of the caramel, I felt guilty. My father did the sums. He knew he was being short-changed to the tune of one penny and told me that Alfie must have mistakenly given me the wrong change, that I should go back to the shop and get the penny back.
My father knew that I had spent the penny but did not let on, he simply asked me to go back to Alfie, a trader for whom everyone in the community had the greatest respect, and tell Alfie that he had made a mistake with the change. I knew I could not do this and, finally, I had to admit to my father that I had spent the penny on a sweetie. Then I got what was possibly the most important lesson in my entire life.
You do not steal from, deceive, lie to, or in any manner cheat, your own kind. Poor people have a hard time. Poor people help one another. They do not steal from one another. A penny might not seem like much but, when a family is struggling to make ends meet, every penny counts. I was well aware, he reminded me, that he was too ill to work and my mother was out working very hard to make ends meet. If I, or my brothers, thought we could pilfer a ha’penny or penny here and there, we were stealing from our parents, we were disrespecting our parents, we were being dishonest, and we were not appreciating how hard it was to survive from day to day.
I was so ashamed. My father did not shout at me, he did not beat me, he was angry but calm. He merely made me aware of my selfish behaviour and helped me to realise that, to survive, we all need to be able to trust and rely on one other. We need to understand the meaning of, the true concept of, community.
More Early Lessons
Walking with my dog Sandy on Glasgow Green, wondering where the Clyde was flowing to, wondering at the sun dancing on cherry blossom and the sweetness of the scented bloom. And clambering with Sandy through Netherton Woods and stalking across Eaglesham moor with William Stewart and Sandy in tow.
Many days of talking over all the confusion of the world with my brother, Billy. Struggling with myself as my strange, adolescent body pushed me through puberty into an ungainly, uncomfortable, big breasted teenager I did not want to be. And fighting the unfairness of a gendered world that told me I could not be on a par with my brothers, and I ought not to expect the same freedoms as the boys. The world, as far as I could see, was made by women, controlled by men, and very unjust. And like my mother and my grandmother before me, I refused to accept the way things were without a fight. I argued, and most often won my case against my father’s expectations, with my mother’s help. Other people, boys my age, teachers and other men, were not so easy.
So I found a part-time job when I was thirteen years old and started buying myself the things that my parents could not afford to give me. When we got our first, mono, record player, I went to Woolworth’s and spent my wages on Debussy’s piano concertos, and most importantly, Nina Simone’s album, Chain Gang. I bought books of poems by writers like Roger McGough, Brian Patton, Yevtushenko and Leonard Cohen. I heard The Incredible String Band’s Layers of The Onion and became an avid fan. I visited the Glasgow Folk Club, based in a top floor tenement flat with my brothers and friends and heard The Humblebums, the lyrical Gerry Rafferty and his banjo playing partner, Billy Connelly, who kept us in stitches with his patter whenever Gerry had to restring and retune his guitar.
And, with Billy, I attended lectures in the Carlton Place premises of the Socialist Labour League (later rebranded as the Revolutionary Worker’s Party). We joined the Young Socialists and went on paper sales around Glasgow’s pubs, and attended demostrations in London, the thirteen hour bus journies there and back providing ample opportunity for discussion of the inequities of the world; the Vietnam War, the American Civil Rights Movement, the decline of true Socialism within the Parliamentary Labour Party.
And at those London rallies I listened to the interminably long speeches of Gerry Healey and was disturbed by this little man: my very strong gut reaction against him causing me to fall out with others within my group and preventing me from joining the WRP when my brothers did. Only years later, in the mid-eighties, did my comrades learn that Healey had used his position of power to intimidate numerous young female party members into sexual relations with him. By which time both my elder brothers were dead, and glad I was that they were not around to see the disintegration of the organisation to which they had both given so much of their lives.
I was never tempted to follow a ‘leader’. At every turn, whether within a local community group, a writers’ group, or feminist groups, I found jumped-up individuals who craved power and used domineering, bullying tactics to gain control, to the detriment of the others and their ideals. So I remained on the margins, interested in ideas, willing to work hard for good reasons, but was never able to pledge allegiance to particular lines of thought or individuals, or willing to keep my mouth shut when blind adherence to an official line was sought.
I look like my mother
I look like my mother. Always have done. Not a little, but a lot. When I was in my teens many people said I looked like my father and I did, we all did, a little. However, I really look like my mother. I have been aware of that all my adult life, and even more so as I have aged. It is remarkable. Many of the people who know me do not know my mother so make no comment, unless they happen to be in my house and they catch sight of a family photograph. But people who have become acquainted with my mother in the past few years without knowing me first, are always taken aback when they meet me. They have never seen such an uncanny resemblance. They feel compelled to remark upon it, they cannot help themselves.
For most of two thousand and eight, while my hair was longer than it had been in seven years, the likeness was so pronounced it surprised even me. There was no mirror in the house I was living in at that time and only when I was out and about in town would I have occasion to see my reflection. Catching sight of me in a shop window or mirrored glass in a cafe could stop me in my tracks, take my breath away, and really shake me up.
Apparently I also bear a remarkable resemblance to my maternal grandmother as she was in her younger days. When I was thirty three I met a very old woman. We did not know each other. We were not introduced. She just asked me, out of the blue. “Are you related to Maggie McQuade?” I said I was Maggie McQuade’s granddaughter and then the old woman told me that she had worked beside my granny and she just knew I had to be related. She had not seen my grandmother in more than fifty years, when my grandmother had been around my age.
That the old woman recognised my family connection from my appearance intrigued me, and that’s when I really became aware of parallels between my own life and the life of my grandmother. Not an exact correlation, far from it, but parallels in ways that are not so obvious from a casual comparison. Apart from having her name, Margaret McQuade, I also spent a number of years hawking goods at the Barrows, Glasgow’s largest and oldest street market, as she did fifty years before me. Like her, I have always been fearless, well perhaps not fearless but certainly able to overcome fear enough to step outside the box, to be independent, to try to change my life around when necessary, to go places and take chances that many people would balk at, to take all the blows and keep on going. In truth, the same applies to my mother. On a practical level my grandmother, my mother and me have all lived very different lives yet all three of us have shared characteristics, personality traits, and similar life experiences to a striking degree.
While my hair was longer than it had been for seven years and I looked so much like my mother it was freaking me out, I was in a really bad way. It was an incredibly difficult time emotionally. I was such a wreck I scarcely recognised myself. So, when my regular hairdresser, a friend who comes to my house, had finished chopping off the unwanted locks and asked me if my haircut was alright, I ran my hand over my closely cropped head and told her, without even looking in a mirror, that I felt more like myself again. I then went to the bathroom to look at my hair and felt gratified. I looked like a woman who looks like her mother but is not her mother. I looked like me. I was briefly able to imagine that I could be myself again. That was two weeks ago and now I am not so sure.
There has been a qualitative change in me. A friend recently picked me, in a Facebook questionnaire, as her most ‘down-to-earth’ friend. A compliment of sorts, I suppose. But I find myself drifting, becoming progressively reclusive, feeling less inclined to care very much about anything – including my own well-being, and very far from being down-to-earth. I find myself sinking into a place that I believe my grandmother might have frequented. A place of isolation, in my case self-imposed, of excessive drinking, of trying to not think too much about anything… especially my life.
Various relatives and friends have suggested that I write my memoirs. If the truth be told, I am afraid to go there. Yet feel I must, though the prospect is terrifying. I’m scared I might drown in my grief. It has taken so much effort to stay afloat thus far. Now I’m so much less fit, physically and emotionally, I don’t know that I have the strength to continue treading.
Last year, when my hair was long and I did not feel like myself, I was in a strange place, literally and figuratively. Caught in an intricate web of negative emotions, I was incapable of rational thought or decision-making. Alone in a foreign country with no one to talk to, I struggled to extricate myself and found that the more I struggled, the more transfixed I became.
Grief is a most complex state of mind. When a person one cares deeply for dies after a protracted illness it is painful yet, in some sense, welcome and acceptable insofar as death seems preferable to the person’s continued suffering. When a loved one dies unexpectedly, perhaps accidently, perhaps violently, it is more than painful. It seems almost beyond the power of comprehension, the shock and circumstances of sudden loss is devastating, debilitating.
The death of a relationship brings new layers of grief. Whether it is the end of a platonic friendship or of a love affair, to become estranged from the person one has loved and, perhaps, lived with for some time, is very much like bereavement. But, unlike an actual bereavement, there can be the additional burden of self doubt and, or, self blame, and the absolutely soul-destroying pain of rejection.
In Morocco last August, I was trying to come to terms with the disintegration of a relationship. I was in a state of confusion. My partner claimed to love and respect me but was no longer relating to me in an honest manner. The relaxed intimacy we had previously enjoyed was suddenly gone and I had no one with whom I could discuss my situation. I had come to Morocco to buy property and settle there but, with my relationship faltering, I did not know whether to stay in Morocco or return to Scotland. It was not an easy decision. Besides the emotional pain of realising that my partner had lied to me, and was still being less than truthful, there were practical and financial considerations, and health implications.
Part of my reasoning for moving to Morocco had been climatic. The warm, dry atmosphere of North Africa alleviates the arthritic pains that plague me in the cold and damp Scottish climate. My flat in Glasgow was rented out. Returning there would make others homeless. Also, I had planned on setting up a business in Morocco, a project that was not financially possible in Scotland, and I had no source of income at home. My dreams of living and working in a warmer clime were in tatters. My relationship had collapsed. My way forward was obscured by loss of self-esteem and I was deeply unsure of how to respond to the unexpected and unwelcome change in my circumstances. Lacking my usual clarity and confidence, and having no one with whom I could talk things over, I did not know what to do or where to go. I was desolate.
Then, on Thursday the twenty second of August, I received a phone call from my son with the news that my last remaining brother, Scott, was dead, murdered. He had been stabbed on Allison Street, in Glasgow, the previous night.
Grief is no stranger to me. Sixty one people I have known, and had some form of relationship with, whether relatives, friends or work acquaintances, have died. I was unable to attend all their funerals but, to date, I have attended thirty three.
I encountered mortality at such an early age that I seem to have accepted the inevitability of death with equanimity. There was an old man, my great grandfather Joe McQuade, in a box in the front room when I was too young to talk. There was the departure of great uncle Bobby and great auntie Jeannie and my uncle Jim by the time I was nine years old. Neighbours died. Funeral processions passed by and people stopped on the street and bowed their heads and men removed their bunnets and Catholics crossed themselves. Death was clearly part of everyday life.
I cried when Uncle Jim died. I’ve wept a great many times since:
“ each of us drowned a thousand nights
our hearts have grown weary
our hair turned white.”
But the intensity of one’s experience of grief, like all emotions, varies enormously. As does one’s ability to absorb it. So much depends upon one’s own involvement with the deceased. And depends also upon the manner in which they died.
The death of elderly relatives through age related illnesses is expected. William Stewart’s father being battered to death in his own home was not. William’s own death through violence and drug and alcohol abuse was. Billy being killed by a massive anyeurism just days before his twenty seventh birthday was devastating yet accepted as one of those ‘one in a million’ events. But Stuart dying the same way only six years later, at the age of thirty four, was more difficult to rationalise. My father’s agony made me consider putting a pillow over his head, and I abhorred my cowardice for not doing so. Young Kirsteen’s nightmarish experiences and subsequent suicide still haunts me. Charles becoming HIV positive when only seventeen and dying of AIDS related illness at thirty six was, over many years, almost impossible to bear. Sandie’s self-inflicted, yet accidental , demise is a sorrow I will never be relieved of. Scott being stabbed four times and kicked about the head whilst he lay bleeding to death on the street, is yet another dreadful blow to my already battered heart and head and soul.
And I can barely talk about the awful, impossible to imagine, difficult to express, devastating loss of my mother!
Sometimes I wonder how much longer I can go on.
Just a thought: I’m scared.
In Glasgow I am surrounded by family and friends and memories and emotional highs and lows, but I am tired of living up to others’ perception of me as a strong woman. I feel that to be away, to be in another country where I do not speak the language, and will thus be truly alone, is probably what I need right now. Therefore I am considering a move to Bulgaria.
But I am afraid of my own demons.
I want to confront them but I am scared like I have not been scared for a very long time. Oh yes… believe me, I have been scared before, in ways you could not even begin to imagine, but there is something different about my fear this time. I am truly scared to even think about it.
There is a weariness that is pulling me down.
When I was much younger, can’t remember exactly when but at some point in my early twenties, I noticed things about the people around me. I always had noticed. But, at that time, as I observed various aspects of the people I’d known all my life, I saw some disturbing changes. One great-aunt, whom I had loved and respected, although at times she could be difficult, and dogmatic, had developed a very bitter demeanor. She had a lovely smile, I knew she did, yet, as she grow older, she smiled less often. Around her there hung an air of pessimism and disenchantment with life, a bitterness. And that bitterness was etched on her face. I clearly remember observing her and consciously vowing to myself that I would never become bitter like she had.
I can also remember how I felt about my grandmother. A caring, determined woman who had suffered terrible loss yet continued with loving kindness and compassion and smiles of encouragement for others: I am here recounting thoughts about her as expressed by people who knew her before I was born. By the time I really got to know her she had become a dissillusioned, cantankerous alcoholic who caused many problems for the family. This originally strong and loving woman was eventually beaten low by life and circumstance, and other people. It broke my mother’s heart to see how much her beautiful mother had been demoralised. It broke my heart to see my beautiful, kind-hearted mother have to suffer, several times, the heaviest of blows that can befall any mother. And my own agonies are a mixture of almost all the agonies suffered by my female forebears, and then some, especially the loss of my mother to that dreadful illness, Alzheimer’s. There have been so many horrendous situations to contend with throughout my life. Too many.
It is hard to comprehend this fact: the vast majority of people I know can barely contemplate dealing with even one of the many deaths, one of the many terrible emotional situations, I have had to overcome. That I am still here surprises even me.
Looking back at what I have just written, I am reminded that other people also have to cope with devastating loss and I have known some whose experiences are unimaginable to most of us in Western Europe. For example, a young family wiped out in a house fire or car crash. An entire community massacred. Or people who witness the torture of their loved ones, or their slow death by starvation in times of drought.
I do not live in a war zone, or in a place where natural calamity has stricken whole communities. One person I knew was killed by reckless driving and two people died violent deaths at the hands of others. Whilst several people have been destroyed by the actions of others, and some have committed suicide. Others have been the victims of tragic accidents. And some have died young, unexpectedly, as a result of physiological conditions that are rare. Such a terrible pageant of many of the various circumstances that life can throw at you, and it has all been played out for me, the sole surviving member of my immediate family.
And still I live and still I smile, sometimes. 2009